The first point to take up is what the question asks. Does it mean: “Is God part of the world, do we have rational–and thus communicable, non-mysterious and not inherently private–justification for believing that the claim is true?” Or does it mean the somewhat different question, “Is God real?” And if the latter, what criteria of reality is to be applied to searching out the answer?
A problem in approaching the issue is that, as many believers maintain, God is not supposed to be “of this world,” as would be unicorns, mermaids, a missing person or UFOs. God would be logically prior to and/or transcendent or beyond the world.
That is to say, God is the sort of being we do not find among all the other beings in the world but one that exists in some other sense. God’s existence is, thus, unique, unlike the existence of anything else in the world of which we can learn in familiar ways–e.g., going on an expedition, doing experiments, finding that it makes good sense of our experiences (e.g., a jealous motive), and so forth. As Anselm noted, even an atheist would admit that this is how we think of God, as such a unique, extraordinary being.
So what is the nature of God and what do we mean by “existence” for such an entity? We are usually told that God is an omniscient, omnipotent, omni-benevolent, and eternal being that is supernatural, spiritual and mysterious.
Thus not only have we no direct, ordinary experience of God or are able to infer God’s existence from some well grounded and, therefore, sound theory; not only does God not come to light upon analyzing some experiences and looking for something that underlies these. It actually appears that none of these approaches could prove to us God’s existence for God’s existence is not subject to being established in such a mundane fashion.
What then is left? One might say that there is a familiar way to establishing God’s existence, namely, by way of the argument from best explanation. A believer might put it thus, “We accept hypotheses of all kinds based upon what we may loosely call their explanatory power. If the kind of being God is said to be is the best way to make sense of the reality of the universe and nothing is contradicted by that, God’s existence should be believed. Black wholes, after all, were believed in for similar reasons–they explained something for which no other good explanation could be found.”
Does God’s existence provide an explanation for anything not explainable in less problematic–less grandiose, more familiar, not internally confusing—terms? Although in many explanations–e.g., when we postulate the infinity of space so as to make sense of some phenomena in astrophysics–the thing posited “outstrips by a lot” what is supposed to be explained by it, there is usually nothing internally incoherent about it. But God’s existence is very problematic because His characteristics seem not to be able to coexist.
For example, omniscience and omnipotence appear to conflict in certain respects, as do omnipotence, omni-benevolence and being the creator (of a universe containing a great deal of suffering, pain and misery). But perhaps what seems incompatible to us is merely a matter of God’s innate mysteriousness, something we just do not, indeed cannot, grasp (as some fideistic theists maintain).
God’s innate mysteriousness, at least to human inquirers, makes God a difficult candidate for qualifying as an explanation for anything. God’s nature as something alien to the nature studied in physics, chemistry, biology, etc., is the problem here.
Consider: How can something intend, without the brain that enables us to have thoughts and make judgments? How can God communicate without any of the facilities or faculties that make communication part of the world? How can God be a cause without any of the familiar attributes that enable things to produce other things? More generally, how can something explain the existence of something else if it is impossible to reconcile some of its own properties: e.g., omniscience, omnipotence and omni-benevolence with the clear presence of bad things within the realm supposedly explained by God.
So, at least the sort of God associated with major religions, such as Roman Catholicism, seems to invite serious puzzles rather than solve them. For example, God is supposed to make possible at least one virgin birth, the rising of some dead persons, the raising of the dead by some other persons, the changing of water into wine, the presence of three persons in one, and several other miracles.
An explanation is good, in large measure, when it clears things up, not when it produces more puzzles than had existed before its acceptance. Indeed, the only problem God’s existence seems to promise to solve is the origin of the universe but not without immediately introducing a corresponding problem, namely, the existence of God ex nihilo.
Indeed, if God could exist eternally, as the solution to this problem is often put, it isn’t at all clear why could that same solution not be introduced for the existence of the universe and thus make God unnecessary for originating the universe? No reason seems to exist for this.
A Thomist might be tempted to argue here that an entity which eternally exists and does not change its nature, is a different kind of entity from the universe, which is but the collection of all those beings that exist and constantly undergo changes that require explanations. Yet there may well be some things that do not change for the universe either, such as its most basic (metaphysical) laws, the laws of being qua being (to which a Thomist will certainly attest). So in this sense there is already something about the universe that meets what we look for in explaining the universe–a point Spinoza notes in his recasting of theism in atheistic terms.
Maybe, however, we ought to believe because it pleases us to do so? Some pragmatists would so claim. We certainly involve ourselves in numerous ventures that aren’t based on truth–the whole fascination with games, sports, magic, art in general, etc., would appear to attest to this. So why not believe in God if it makes one feel good? Why not consider such a belief simply life-enriching?
First, those other non-truth related matters are pretty much optional and those few who have no affinity for them aren’t supposed to be sinners, on their way to hell or missing out on something most important in life (unless one listens to the football, soccer or baseball fans of some university or some European or Latin American city). Second, no one attributes truth value to claims about who ought to win or lose in sports, who ought to succeed or fail in the arts. It is all pretty optional, to be determined as a matter of talent and effort. In religion, however, God is supposed to be real, one’s belief in God obligatory, one’s failure to believe devastating for one’s eternal salvation, and others are often authorized to coerce or at least cajole or implore one to adhere if one is indifferent or does not see the point.
The last substantive point I want to consider is whether mere acceptance of the necessity of existence–of necessary being–may not suffice as the existence of God. But why should that suffice in the face of the overwhelming use of the term “God” for a being or beings that purportedly are far more than necessarily existent. The principle of non-contradiction, for example, may be said to be necessarily existent–it is a principle that holds in any possible universe, to use a familiar way of putting it. But one would not confuse it with God, would one?
So we turn to the next step in this inquiry, namely, when it is advanced that we need to believe in God’s existence on the basis of faith. Faith is the sort of ground of belief that goes against and despite experience or argument. As Aquinas put it, “in faith the assent … is not caused by the thought but by the will.” One has faith in someone one no longer can trust–as a spouse may have faith in a repeatedly philandering mate, despite all the evidence. It takes faith to believe that this partner will never repeat the betrayals.
Granted, theists do not advise that we have faith about everything, not directly. Yet by implication they do advise that some–maybe even the most–important aspects of nearly everything ought to be taken on faith. Some prominent Christian Scientists ask us to abandon the help of physicians because we are essentially spiritual beings and prayer to God will be a much better road to healing ourselves and our children than relying on the work of medical doctors. And even religions without such drastic doctrines counsel that we should spend time on prayer, meditation, reading the Bible, etc., and forswear many more mundane ventures we could be embarking upon, as a matter of our underlying faith in God.
The question then is, “Is it right for us to believe in something (very important, widely influential in our lives) on the basis of faith?” It does not seem to. We ought perhaps to believe, on faith, that our neighbors will treat us well, even if the evidence of such treatment among human beings is feeble, yet we are in need of the neighbor’s kindness just now. Even this is more like hope than faith, since some clear cases of trustworthiness back us up here. Maybe the case of having faith in the untrustworthy husband is at least excusable.
But ought we to convict criminals on the basis of faith? We would be doing an injustice. Given the importance of the issue, we need to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, otherwise remain unconvinced. Also, if we recommended medication or the doctor’s treatment on the basis of no more than faith, we would face malpractice suits. (We do often simply have faith that some psychological therapy will work, even when we have little or no evidence that it has helped anyone. This, too, seems more like hope than faith, since faith arises in the face of contrary evidence. Some theologians actually argue that the beauty of faith lies in its contradicting evidence, argument–otherwise it wouldn’t merit rewards.)
Is it not evident that if we lead our lives on the basis of faith, we would perish? It seems to be so–indeed, the young people on hallucinogenic drugs did have faith they could fly and when they jumped off buildings killed themselves. It is not enough to respond, well but faith in God is something limited, not all embracing of the important issues in life. In most ordinary religions we are asked, plaint blank, to trust God in everything, to follow scripture or some organized religion’s interpretation of it, because it is God’s word. The faith Kierkegaard asks of us seems to be more consistent than the faith asked by those who somehow imagine they can delineate the things of faith and the things of reason.
Faith, from the viewpoint of trying to prepare for living a successful human life, seems to be a luxury, to be indulged when serious matters of human living have been handled.
But even if we did believe on the basis of faith, in this case what is it we are asked to believe in, apart from the myriad stories told by different religions? At heart, it is in the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, omni-benevolent being.
Can such a being be understood to exist? Can God create an object so big that He cannot lift it? Why doesn’t God eliminate bad things – diseases, earthquakes, tornadoes? (This is not the same as why He doesn’t eliminate human evil, for which a somewhat plausible answer may be available.) Furthermore, how would free choice be possible if God already knows everything? How could God cause the existence of the universe when causes are part of the universe, of the universe?
Belief in God is not only unjustified but morally suspect. Even if God existed this would be true: indeed, that is the story of my conversion to atheism. I thought that even if there is a God who created us, we would be betraying ourselves, something God would have to regard as evil, by believing in Him against all reason.
The issue of God’s existence is, in the last analysis, the issue of whether we human beings ought to believe in God’s existence. There is no way independent of this that God’s existence can be considered. But, it seems, we violate the norms derivable from our understanding of human nature if we believe important things, including that God exists, on the basis of faith. So we ought not believe that God exists. This need not be some final judgment on the matter–we ought not believe a lot of things that could, in time, warrant belief. But we cannot be held responsible to hold beliefs we cannot sensibly form and reasonably hold on to.